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5 Things I Wish I’d Known About Mental Illness and Teens

Thursday, June 2nd, 2011

1. teen mental illnessIt May Not Look Like Mental Illness I was a teenager who wore black, slept a lot and cried often. I ate too much or too little, couldn’t concentrate on my homework and wasn’t interested in a social life. I had no idea that these symptoms, if they last more than a couple of weeks, can signal serious depression.  I  simply thought this was what being a teenager was like. It wasn’t until I was 26 that I had my first “nervous breakdown” and was diagnosed with chronic depression. I was lucky. If I’d turned to drugs or alcohol as a way to solve my problems, I might have been another teenage drug addict or alcoholic, and never have gotten the help I needed. Even so, I didn’t recognize the symptoms in my son until it was too late. He was already doing drugs every day. He wasn’t diagnosed until he was 33.

2. Look for Mental Illness in the Family
Was there an aunt in your family who had a “nervous breakdown” when you were growing up? A grandparent who never spoke to anyone?  A relative who ‘burned out’ at work? A cousin who had to leave college because the stress was too much? A brother who was in trouble because of drinking or partying? These may pointer to underlying mental health issues. Many mental illnesses run in families. If there’s mental illness in yours, then your child’s drug activities may be an attempt to self-medicate the family disease.

3. Get Informed
When I was dealing with my own depression and then my son’s there wasn’t the vast amount of information around that there is today. I had to look for books in the self-help section of the library or bookstore. I felt ashamed that I needed the books, and sure other people were judging me. These days, there is almost too much information around — so pick your sources carefully. The best information on drug addiction and mental health comes from reputable sites like The Partnership at and the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Parents’ blogs can be helpful too, mainly because they tell you about other parents’ experiences, and may help you realize that you’re not alone in dealing with this.

4. Don’t Wait to Get Help
If your child is showing signs of depression, don’t wait until they agree to see someone about it. Be proactive. You can begin with your child’s school counselor, sports coach, clergy or doctor. These days, counselors have extensive information about outside resources to help both you and your child. They can recommend sliding scale counseling agencies that charge reasonable amounts and have access to emergency resources such as Mobile Crisis and the local Department of Children and Families, which can also point you in the right direction. But do it now. If you wait until your child is 17, you won’t have the right to make him or her get help.

5. If You Can’t Help Your Teen, Help Yourself
Sometimes, your child’s problems will seem overwhelming. Don’t let your child’s problems become your whole life. Make sure you take care of yourself first, so that you can help your child. A sick parent can’t do much to help a sick child. Get support (Al-Anon and 12 step groups are free and easy to find anywhere in the country). Ask your local hospital about support groups for parents, or see a counselor yourself. Join conversations online, or write a journal or blog. Eat right and get some exercise every day. You deserve looking after, too.

Editor’s Note: To learn more about co-occurring disorders, please visit Time To Get Help and download the Treatment eBook.

Posted by  |  Filed under Addiction, Alcohol, Co-Occurring Disorders, mental illness, Stigma, Taking Care of Yourself

18 Comments on “5 Things I Wish I’d Known About Mental Illness and Teens”

Sandi Shelton says:
June 2nd, 2011 at 4:26 pm

This is such a helpful article. There is a lot of depression and mental illness in my family or origin…and I think one of the toughest things is knowing just what is “normal teenage behavior” and what is truly a sign of mental illness. All of us can’t help but get this wrong sometimes. When do you intervene? When is the person pushing you away really crying for help? Thank you for this. It’s important to know that early intervention can make such a difference.

kc says:
June 2nd, 2011 at 8:12 pm

Great article- for those of us who have been long trying to help our children who struggle with various forms of mental illness and for those just beginning. #5 Taking care of yourself is often harder than you might think. A wise friend once told me that you are only as happy as your unhappiest child. Happiness is the end goal for all those we care about.

Caroline Brook Boysen says:
June 3rd, 2011 at 8:53 am

What a pity this well-meaning article is! It skips the point and jumps to a conclusion based on genetics or the old-fashioned notion of “bad blood”, the inherited family disease. At least the pharmaceutical companies will be pleased… They see the sales of their products rocket thanks to articles like this, as parents and children start pill-popping, believing they come from a strain of depressives.

What has happened to a bit of good old common sense, to a bit of sensitivity, and above all, to some love and hope? There is something in genetics, but not everything.

Even before the era of Freud and Jung, the poet Byron, who suffered from severe depression all his life, objected to the then Victorian notion that mental illnesses were “in the blood”: he wrote that he remembered, with intense pain, the causes of his illness and that he had suffered at the hands of the adults surrounding him when he was very young. (He added that they had been well-meaning.) He was a poet – a sensitive and intelligent man.

I join him and would like to say: as far as you can, be sensitive to your young children; don’t leave them neglected and don’t blunt their sense of self worth. Let them develop and flower against a backdrop of loving care, teach them what adversity is – and above all, do NOT always “help yourself first”, as the article suggests. A young child needs to sense that the adults in his world will put HIM first, when necessary, whatever. A good parent doesn’t leave an infant to cry because s/he’s tired, or wants to read a book, unless s/he wants a frightened and unhappy infant, soon to become a frightened and unhappy teen, then adult.

A little loving sensitivity, common sense and hope, then! It all starts early, at home. If you feel you’ve got it all wrong – and nobody is perfect – don’t imagine the family is cursed by disease, it doesn’t help. There will be, in most cases, a non-genetic solution.

Caroline B.B. (BA Psychology/Sociology)

Tricia Tierney says:
June 3rd, 2011 at 9:38 am

Thanks for this important information. I can be so difficult to ask for help — but it can make all the difference.

June 3rd, 2011 at 11:36 am

This is an excellent, extremely insightful article. If only more people knew how to recognize the signs think of all the children that could be saved. This should be required reading for all parents. Good job, Gabi.

Molly says:
June 6th, 2011 at 6:47 pm

I need your help/advice. I have a son, 23 years old, who is suffering from depression. I see all the symptoms are present, and unfortunately he is turning to marijuana and beer, and God knows what else. I had a talk with him about the depression, and he sort of accepts it, but denies any help. What do I do? I cannot drag him physically to doctors or counselors. he thinks he’s can do Ok on his own. But I know that depression like any other illness should be treated, and he won’t be able to do it himself.
Please, give an isight on what to do.

Cathy | Treatment Talk says:
June 7th, 2011 at 3:22 am

Thanks for your informative article. I agree that not waiting to get help and being proactive can begin the process of diagnosing a mental illness or addiction. Either one left on their own can spiral out of control. Teenagers need parental guidance and their involvement. That is the perfect and last time we can really intervene and insure our kids get the help they need.

Gabi Coatsworth says:
June 7th, 2011 at 2:39 pm

To Molly
Thanks for your comment. I don’t have enough information from you to be able to give you specific advice, and I’m not a professional, but I can tell you that in our case, I had to stop getting my son out of trouble and even encourage police intervention. My son was only diagnosed when he was arrested for marijuana possession, and I didn’t bail him out. The courts are often willing to mandate medical treatment for offenders. However, you needn’t wait for anything quite so drastic. Call the Drugfree Toll-Free Parents Helpline, 1-888-Drugfre and talk to a live person who’ll be able to give you the right advice for your particular circumstances.

Patti Herndon says:
June 8th, 2011 at 12:18 am

Thank you, Gabi, for sharing your insights and encouragements. Through your spirit of sensitivity, common sense, love and hope; you’re helping raise awareness. And, that could never be a pity ;0) I look forward to hearing more from you here at Intervene, soon.

“Mental” and “Illness”…Combine those words and the resulting perception is catalyst for some amount of emotional stirring or psychological discomfort for so very many people –all kinds of people,from all walks of life. Those words should not have that kind of power. But, then, we collectively allow it.

As we continue to make progress and increasingly pull together for the greater good specifically on behalf of responsibly supporting, encouraging and empowering those struggling to find their way to healthier coping with regard to their individual circumstances/challenges with “mental illness” and addiction; Doing so without marginalizing those challenged or their families…Doing so with a heart that strives to consciously avoid a resulting spirit (intended or not) of critical analysis/blame concerning another’s journey, or efforts in advocacy, (so obviously purposed toward raising collective awareness –as in Gabi’s article), then, we will have the “cure” for stigma.

Stigma’s cure is the key that opens the gates to quality treatment and advances gained through research, for EVERYONE -Healing at the individual, family, community and global level.

“How” we say what it is we say, or don’t say…combined with what we believe or don’t believe fuels outcome for better or worse. Irrespective our credentials, we increase our own personal credibility (and that’s what counts) as we understand, better and better, how our chosen spirit of communication impacts the hearts and minds/the journeys of others. We should begin by asking ourselves…”Is it my motivation to share for the purpose of teaching/learning and authentically encouraging, or is it that I just feel the need to be “right” more than anything else…

It’ helpful to have at our reach a menu of options. A great resource for support, learning, sharing and encouraging, in addition to those mentioned above:

Addiction is the journey. Recovery is the destination.

Patti Herndon -PhD from URW ( University of Real World experience ;0) in parenting an incredible son diagnosed at 14 with major depressive disorder and a co-occurring substance use disorder.

Patti Herndon says:
June 8th, 2011 at 12:22 am

The article, below, might be of some help in expanding upon this extremely relevant post by Gabi. It provides information on statistics/prevalence of co-occurring disorders and offers some brain science information that is interesting, as well as significant…It speaks to the biological, psychological and sociological components of mental illness and addiction.

The Challenges of Dual Diagnosis
By Hugh C. McBride

Addiction and mental illness share a number of traits: Both are oft-misunderstood disorders that some misguided individuals continue to insist are actually “character flaws” that can be overcome by will power alone; both have biological bases and emotional aspects; and, left untreated, both can ruin lives.
Another similarity is that both conditions often occur in the same person.
Known in medical parlance as a “dual diagnosis,” the co-occurrence of mental illness and addiction can present significant challenges to recovering patients as well as to the health care and rehabilitation professionals with whom they are working.
In the “Co-occurring Disorders” section of its website, the nonprofit advocacy group Mental Health America expresses the challenges of dual diagnosis in stark terms:
“For people struggling with co-occurring mental health and substance abuse disorders, physical safety and overall health risks are greater; the impairment of life skills is greater; and the chances for successful treatment are much less – all of which contribute to stigma.”
As the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) puts it, “having a simultaneous mental illness and a substance abuse disorder frequently leads to overall poorer functioning and a greater chance of relapse.”
NAMI, which notes that there is little conclusive data on the prevalence of dual diagnosis, cites the following statistics from reports in the Journal of the American Medical Association:
•About 50 percent of people with severe mental disorders are also affected by substance abuse issues.
•Twenty-nine percent of all people who are diagnosed with a mental illness also abuse either alcohol or another drug.
•Thirty-seven percent of alcohol abusers and 53 percent of drug abusers also have at least one serious mental illness.
According to Dr. Andrew Chambers, who led a 2007 study on the brain’s role in dual diagnosis, between 20 to 50 percent of all individuals who suffer from anxiety or depression also have some type of addiction, as do 40 to 80 percent of those diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia. Chambers noted this data in a Dec. 2, 2007 American Psychological Association press release that announced the results of his research.
Though health professionals have long noted the prevalence of dual diagnosis, relatively little research has been conducted into a biological explanation for an individual’s predisposition to develop two such potentially debilitating disorders. Many experts believed – and continue to theorize – that addiction follows mental disorders as a result of afflicted individuals attempting to “self-medicate” their psychic pain away.
However, Chambers and his team may have gained some significant insights into the physical roots of this complex condition.
Chambers’ research addressed developmental changes in an area of the brain called the amygdala, which is associated with emotions such as fear and anxiety. According to the APA release, his study found that rats whose amygdalas had been surgically damaged during their infancy grew up to be “abnormally under-responsive” to certain stimuli, but were hypersensitive to the effects of cocaine.
In humans, Chambers said in the release, a similar effect could result from brain damage prompted by as-yet-unknown causes. “Early emotional trauma, paired with a certain genetic background, may alter the early development of neural networks intrinsic to the amygdala, resulting in a cascade of brain effects and functional changes that present in adulthood as a dual-diagnosis disorder,” he said.
“Brain conditions may alter addiction vulnerability independently of drug history,” Chambers added, noting that this may also explain why some dual diagnosis patients do not respond as well as expected to certain psychiatric medications.
According to Dual Recovery Anonymous, a nonprofessional support group based upon the Twelve Step principles of recovery, the following are among the obstacles that can impede the effective treatment of dual-diagnosis patients:
•The symptoms of a person’s mental illness may be masked by the effects of his abuse of alcohol or other drugs.
•Abuse of – and withdrawal from – alcohol and other drugs can present “false symptoms” that incorrectly suggest the presence of a specific psychiatric disorder.
•A person’s untreated chemical dependency can contribute to a re-occurrence of her mental illness.
•A person’s untreated mental illness can slow his recovery from his addiction, and can cause him to relapse.
Until the mid-1980s, the primary method for dealing with dual-diagnosis patients involved “parallel treatment,” in which the two conditions with which the patient was afflicted were treated simultaneously but separately by two distinct health care teams. Over the previous two decades, though, an integrated approach has become the norm, with a unified team addressing all of the patient’s needs.
The integrated treatment model has earned widespread approval, with the National Institute on Mental Health advocating that patients “receive consistent treatment, with no division between mental health or substance abuse assistance. The approach, philosophy and recommendations are seamless, and the need to consult with separate teams and programs is eliminated.”

Addiction is the journey. Recovery is the destination.

Janelle Johnson says:
June 9th, 2011 at 3:12 pm

This is a great article to raise awareness.
There are biological and environmental contributions
in mental illness. The brain is so extremely complex,
so many things factor into the result of a mental illness and/or addiction. It is shallow thinking that concludes that there are finite answers to this massive area of scientific investigation, much of which is yet to be unraveled.

Mary says:
June 14th, 2011 at 2:57 am

There is also a 12 step program for people who have loved ones in addiction. It is Families Anonymous, the website is It has saved my life.

Gabi Coatsworth says:
June 14th, 2011 at 3:36 pm

Thanks for the information, Mary. I’m not familiar with Families Anonymous, but for people who can’t reach one of their meetings, Al-Anon is also open to families and friends of people with any kind of addiction or dual diagnosis problem. They have probably thousands of meetings a day throughout the US and elsewhere.

geraldine says:
June 22nd, 2011 at 9:10 am

Good to hear from you in this article, Gabi. You have a depth of wisdom and experience on this subject that always provokes further thoughts and insights.
Speaking personally, I observe in myself a dark internal space or emptiness, which occasionally expands and swallows me up, twisting my guts and slowing my movements, making every challenge seem insurmountable. This nearly always occurs when several seemingly small and trivial incidents (like someone laughing as I walk past them, or an unfamiliar change on my PC) coincide, causing the demon paranoia to rear its head.
This is separate and different from the black blanket that can fall on me from the sky, usually arriving without warning as I wake up, with no thoughts or insights as to why it has arrived and stays with me for days (or years) at a time.
In myself, I conclude that they are both part of the same problem, complete lack of any feeling of self worth, brought on by systematic bullying and disregard for my feelings from very early infancy. Never feeling I had a safe haven resulted in my first agoraphobic attack when I was around three years old.
I wonder if any study has been done on the effects of fear and anxiety on the chemistry of a developing infant brain.
The benefits have been a very highly developed imagination, which was and is a safe haven to escape to, and a sensitivity to, respect for and ability to empathise with other people with depression.
My sons and I all have addictive personalities, as did my mother and all her family. Being aware of it helps.
We also laugh about everything, tease each other and discuss our worries and fears with openness and honesty, something I never had in my childhood. I will always be grateful that we communicated so well throughout their teenage years, as they all came to me with problems and trusted my advice. They still do, and I now go to them too.
Thank you, Gabi.

ronda says:
June 24th, 2011 at 4:22 pm

My son is going on his 9th year of heroin addiction and is now 24. He was hospitalized on a dual diagnosis unit this past March for 7 days where he detoxed, came home, stayed somewhat clean for a few weeks then nosedived right back into his addiction. I found him unresponsive when I came home from work this past Saturday, called EMS and he landed back in the same hospital.
I had to 302 him d/t his recent verbalization of his wish to die. ( He is currently enmeshed in multiple cases with the Criminal Justice System)The local cop who came with EMS suggested I do the 302. I told the cop I have attempted 3 X in the past at various hospitals for 302 and the hospital always releases him.My son is then double angry at me b/c I want him to stay involuntarily to somehow get the help that he needs.
He has no health insurance so for 4 months he has been unable to get into an inpatient rehab as there are no funds to accept him. This most recent 72 hour stay in the ER he had to stay the whole 72 hours in the waiting room because there was no bed available for him ( No insurance=no bed) The staff kept wanting to discharge him , insisting that he has an addiction issue-not a mental issue.I believe they stayed by their conclusion of “addiction only” and a mental issue wouldn’t be documented and therefore they would not be responsible to treat. I kept telling them that he has been depressed for years, never finished High School, never worked, can barely get out of bed from underneath the covers most days.He also has longtime anger/ rage issues and has destroyed so many things in the past.
The healthcare system is a mess and let’s face it, our healthcare professionals do not give a damn about addicts.

My son’s friend, who was 22 and who he was with Saturday when he overdosed, fatally overdosed himself Tuesday.

Gabi Coatsworth says:
June 28th, 2011 at 7:58 pm

I am so sorry to hear about your situation, Ronda. The only way I’ve been able to get help for my son is by telling the police that he poses a risk to himself or to me, and making sure he’s admitted to a psych ward on those grounds. When he asks to be released, I tell the hospital that he has nowhere to live, because I won’t have him at home until he’s better. In my state, this is grounds for keeping him in the hospital, since he is deemed unable to take care of himself outside (another ground for keeping him hospitalized). My son gets very angry with me over this, and sometimes refuses to let me visit him in the hospital, but I know he needs the help, so I do everything I can to keep him in there.
If you can, find a doctor who will give him an official dual diagnosis. That might help.

theresa says:
June 29th, 2012 at 2:29 am

Help help help my son is 37 yrs old going on 20 has been an addict since he was 19 been in prison twice, treatment, an relapesed twice. Now he has been diagnosed with depression an adhd. Going to the crider center for depression, going to a councelor, an has a regular health doctor, he is on methodone, cymbalta, sequer, an zanex. His choice of drug was herion/ opiates. He still doesn’t have a life. Sits around like a zombi all day from the meds. I believe he is trying to kill himself by self meditating. Im at the end of my rope, can’t take no more. I just want him out of my life, I am his mother.

Patti Herndon says:
October 14th, 2013 at 5:30 pm

Based on what you share, mom, it appears evident that your son has demonstrated a clear desire to be healthier/live healthier. Here’s the irrefutable evidence of that: “Going to the crider center for depression, going to a counselor, an has a regular health doctor…”

His choices to engage help for himself (i.e. seeking treatment for his depression at Crider Center, seeking the support/treatment of a qualified counselor/therapist, as well as his choice to engage the help/the care of his GP, regarding his addiction and mental health challenges, serves as ‘the’ reason that many, many parents, and other loved ones, would choose to see/to frame/to perceive these efforts as reason to continue to hope in his recovery/as reason/as catalyst to consistently encourage what is, clearly, his demonstrated ‘self efficacy’ and motivation to advocate on behalf of his own health.

In order for a son/daughter to have the best possible chance at engaging and sustaining recovery, increasing their self efficacy, well being, and sense of hope about their beyond difficult challenge of substance use disorder/co-occurring mental health challenge; Parents and other CSOs -who are struggling with their own depression/anxiety about their life, and/or about life challenges associated with their child’s substance use disorder- can be benefitted, in their goal to advocate on behalf of their son/daughter, by seeking support/clinical help for themselves.

I’m sure your son would agree that ‘you’ are as deserving of effective, supportive, encouragement, as well as clinical help, as he is.

Godspeed to you Theresa.

Prayers lifted for your son on behalf of what are obvious strides/choices in his journey to better health/better-lived lived moments.

Addiction is the Journey. Recovery is the destination.

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